Darkness that nourished

While reading Mary Kom’s autobiography ‘Unbreakable’, I came across a passage where she described, when she was a child, how she studied and what her home was like. Her home didn’t have electricity. They used to put cotton wicks inside a glass bottle and use them as lamps with kerosene. That reminded me of the lamps we used to use at home when electricity went off…

This post is about the times when I was a fifth grader. Electricity situation at home and around was awful. We used to have six to eight hours of daily load-shedding (power cuts), sometimes even more. Whenever a medicine bottle got empty, we would wash it nice and clean. Then we would poke a hole through the cap. You know the strings using which you would tie pajamas and the likes around your waist? Mom had those strings kept safely after pajamas etc were discarded because of wear and tear. Pieces of those strings served as wicks for our makeshift lamps.

I used to be so fascinated with these DIY lamps, you know! One of my earliest “projects” was to make such a lamp without a wick! To ripen fruits, especially, bananas quickly, Calcium Carbide is used (illegal now). It is colloquially called ‘carpet’. Aptly so, given that it keeps the fruits warm. I procured some. When dumped into water, it used to fizz and buzz. Dad told me it was Acetylene gas. I had heard somewhere that Acetylene burns. Then what, filled half the bottle with water, dumped a tiny lump of carpet into it and lit the gas… my wick-less lamp all ready and glowing! Well, the flame didn’t last long and too much carpet would not produce the gas for longer, it would just produce it faster. It was still a long long time before I learnt of these things called “chemical reactions and their rates”.

Most of the days, our dinner would be during load-shedding. Lamps glowing, flames flickering — those were fun times! We would make various shapes of shadows, play around with colored transparent plastic sheets and lenses. My first “projector” projected a much bigger, magnified flame on our kitchen wall and my parents clapped. I felt so proud! And more importantly, like a friggin genius! (I just had a book of ‘fun experiments you could do at home’, I would just follow those instructions and feel “I’m so brilliant!”)

More than intellectual growth, the load-shedding times were about emotional bonding. Because it is supposed to be bad for your eyes to read/write in such low light, there wouldn’t be any homework to do / storybooks to read during the load-shedding. Even after we were done with dinner, all of us would stick around, talking, gossiping, merry-making.

I would sing poems from my textbooks present and past, Aai (mother) would join in too! Snehal (sister) would then sing her poems, always fiercely competitive. We would sing patriotic songs (my favorite genre), play antakshari, Snehal and I would tell jokes, practice speeches, narrate stories.

Generators/inverters weren’t popular yet. The town would get quite dark during load-shedding. When it got too hot inside, we would go to the terrace, lie under the sky, gazing the stars. There was hardly any light pollution. None of us knew what the star patterns were supposed to be, so we would come up with our own. Only when I went to the astronomy olympiad camp did I find out that the “butterfly thing” is called Orion!

What I cherish and remember most fondly is the stories my parents used to tell about their childhood and youth. Both of my parents are first generation learners in their families. Both come from farmers’ families. They worked in farms to help their parents during their school years. My parents would narrate stories of their modest and humble origins and sometimes I used to feel “dang! My parents are college-teachers! Maybe it’d have been more thrilling and more prestigious had I ‘come up against all kinds of odds’.” But then I used to remember all the toys and books I had and feel grateful that my parents weren’t farmers who faced hardships.

Pappa was a wrestling campion during his university days. He would tell stories about his matches, about how one of his roommates stole money and got thoroughly beaten up later, about how they all used to freeload on the fruits that grew in university gardens. His first job was a government job. Pappa would narrate how he fought with his superior and resigned when he was asked to file some bogus paperwork. “My Pappa’s like a hero!” I would feel, chest a couple of inches wider.

I still remember how I shook with excitement when my parents told me that theirs was a “love marriage”. The families were opposed, so they took their colleagues, went to a temple and got married. Forget ceremonial robes and all, my father was in bathroom slippers! Elders from the girl’s family are supposed to ‘give her hand’ to the boy (kanyadaan), for my parents, a senior colleague of theirs in the college did the kanyadaan! All these stories, boy they were thrilling! How my parents, especially Aai worked hard to bring the two families together, how it was finally my birth that melted the still-frozen hearts… it was so entertaining, power-cuts were welcome.

Apart from these highlights, the power-cuts comprised of countless such stories. Stories, songs, jokes, and science experiments that tied us closer and closer together as family.

It was a darkness I loved — a darkness that nourished!

Nowadays there aren’t any power-cuts and stupid soaps and crappy talent shows take-up the time...

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